Surprisingly, 'Still Alice' Gives Alzheimer's a Cliché-free Treatment

But can a movie whose primary virtue is that it does not turn disease into a metaphor or a life-changing revelation add up to a substantive artistic experience?

Still Alice Written and directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, based on the novel by Lisa Genova; with Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish

A disease is a disease, and turning it into a metaphor increases the suffering of those who are sick – so claimed Susan Sontag in her 1978 best-seller “Illness as Metaphor.” In Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s “Still Alice,” the illness is real, not metaphorical – even if any disease represented in art is inevitably also a metaphor for the fragility of life and the cruelty of fate. Had Sontag, who died of leukemia in 2004, gotten the chance to see “Still Alice,” she might have praised it for keeping illness an illness. Sontag’s comments, however, were more valid as social criticism than as a criterion for judging art. In a movie that deals with a difficult, fatal illness, we need more than just the avoidance of metaphor, and that is something “Still Alice” has trouble providing.

Fifty-year-old Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, who just won this year’s Best Actress Oscar for the role) is a linguistics professor at Columbia. Her loving husband, John (Alec Baldwin), is a physicist. They have three grown children: Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). The latter has a strained relationship with her mother, because she alone, unlike her brother and sister, has refused to make the professional and personal choices expected of a young woman of her age and social class. Everything seems fine in Alice’s life, until suddenly the linguistics professor begins to forget words and gets lost in familiar places. She is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a genetic form of the illness that may well affect her children and future grandchildren.

“Still Alice” follows the heroine’s rapid decline until she is no longer fully herself or fully present. The movie captures this process ably, mainly thanks to the skillful work of Julianne Moore, whose gaze becomes increasingly dull and whose face gradually loses its vitality. The movie follows her family’s response to the illness, but that is actually the film’s weakest point – and a good indication of its shortcomings. Of course Alice’s husband and children are affected by what is happening; but except for Lydia – who once again attests to Kristen Stewart’s powerful screen presence – they seem like shadows fluttering on the sidelines, without adding to the movie or enhancing it.

Avoiding clichés

This limitation may be the result of the filmmakers’ decision to focus almost entirely on Alice and tell her story through her own changing, dissolving consciousness. Therefore, even when her children come to tell her the results of the test they took to see if they, too, carry the Alzheimer’s gene, the scene is devoid of drama, because that is how Alice perceives it at this stage of her disease. But if that was indeed the goal Westmoreland and Glatzer set themselves, it is way out of their league.

“Still Alice” deserves praise for avoiding the usual clichés of movies about illness, such as that being sick reveals just how strong people are or makes them happier. We all know that embarrassing moment on talk shows when a guest, having suffered from some terrible condition, claims that the illness is the best thing that ever happened to him or her, because it has revealed the meaning of life and taught the person to live every moment to the fullest. Westmoreland and Glatzer’s movie does not have such a sentimental agenda; but what, then, does it do? What are we, the audience, supposed to do with Alice’s story?

Of course, we feel sad, because the story is sad; but we also feel that unavoidable satisfaction that it is happening to someone else, which is always the effect of movies about another person’s suffering (an effect possibly enhanced, in this case, by the fact that the sufferer in question lives in such an affluent, comfortable world). If we are sufficiently wise and self-aware, we may find that we also feel a certain panic – because the fact that it is not happening to us does not mean that it couldn’t. Can these three reactions to a film – a movie whose primary virtue is that it does not turn disease into a metaphor or a life-changing revelation – add up to a substantive artistic experience? In this case, at least, the answer is no.

I can’t help but compare “Still Alice” to Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley’s 2006 “Away from Her.” I am making this comparison not because Polley’s movie, which was based on a short story by Alice Munro, also had a heroine (Julie Christie) who suffered from Alzheimer’s. “Away from Her,” too, was about an illness as illness, but Polley’s wisdom gave it an additional level, one that was neither metaphorical nor agenda-driven. Ultimately, “Away from Her” used the story of the heroine and her husband to probe the essence of marriage itself.

At some point in that fine film, when Christie’s character is already in a nursing home, her husband (Gordon Pinsent) becomes the hero of the story. His gaze on his wife, who is changing before his eyes, becomes the film’s main perspective; his struggle to cope turns into its main dilemma. “Away from Her” explores the way illness changes the husband’s perception and awareness, especially when his sick wife begins to shut him out. Their growing distance represents the fragility of their bond, and it shatters the world that the man believed he had built for himself and his wife.

While treating illness as an illness, “Away from Her” was also able to turn its plot premise into an existential fable. “Still Alice,” by contrast, cannot reach that level of thinking and emotion, and while it is certainly a respectable work, it operates solely on a restrained emotional level, never making the kind of demands on us that Polley’s film made. In the end, “Still Alice” somehow avoids a real confrontation with its own materials, giving us instead a disguised form of sentimentality.

I am deliberately not comparing “Still Alice” to Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which touched on similar themes but did so in a thoroughly masterful way that made it a tough, demanding, challenging work. Even “Away from Her,” for all its virtues, pales in comparison, and bringing it up makes “Still Alice” seem almost negligible.